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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 24, 2000. All rights reserved.
Broadway Review: `Copenhagen’
In Michael Frayn’s intense, thoughtful play "Copenhagen,"
two physicists, Niels Bohr (Philip Bosco), a Danish Jew and father
of quantum mechanics, and Werner Heisenberg (Michael Cumpsty), Bohr’s
young German protege and author of "The Uncertainty Principle,"
meet in some sort of afterlife to debate the meaning of their lives,
their collaboration, and their ideological conflicts. Most specifically,
they re-live a mysterious meeting that took place in Denmark in 1941,
when Heisenberg was chief of the Nazi A-bomb project.
Any play in which the characters stand around with the sole purpose
of equating their human behavior to their understanding of particles
that spin around the nucleus of the atom necessarily demands complete
attention. This debate takes place in the watchful and interpretive
presence of Margrethe (Blair Brown), Bohr’s wife. Playwright Frayn,
best known as the author of the popular farce "Noises Off,"
as well as for his translations of Chekhov, does not spare us the
highly technical language of mathematics and physics. He cleverly
allows the play’s central dramatic device, the slightly altered repetition
of events and re-considered conversations, to clarify, for even the
densest among us, the most complex theories.
Regardless of how you feel about what constitutes entertainment, I
would like to wager that you will stay involved, engrossed, and fascinated
by this surrealistical fantasy based on a very real but undocumented
visit by Heisenberg, whose motives have been long debated.
Was Heisenberg, who was a loyal German and professor of physics at
Leipzig but not a Nazi, trying to get from Bohr the equations that
were eluding him in creating weapons of destruction and completing
the bomb? Or was he procrastinating in his work because he was conflicted
by the moral dilemma of his position? Serving as arbitrator and theorist,
Margrethe prods the two scientists, once friends, into replaying,
restating, and reconfiguring their relationship, philosophies, and
motives with the same impassioned integrity that they applied to their
Bohr’s irrefutable reasoning could not be better served than by Philip
Bosco’s stiff-necked countenance and resonant authoritative voice.
Michael Cumpsty, whom McCarter Theater audiences may remember as the
young Orestes in "Electra," is as splendidly invigorating
as he is enigmatic to the play’s end. He heightens the mysteries of
Heisenberg’s impenetrable agenda as his mathematical side collides
with his human side in his curious attempt to reconcile guilt for
his nation’s war-making with his dedication to progress and science.
Blair Brown, who most recently gave a luminous performance in the
Broadway musical "James Joyce’s The Dead," is equally effective
in the role of the objective onlooker who facilitates this meeting
between the man she trusts and loves and the man whose remorse appears
as real as do his inconsistencies.
Designed by Peter J. Davison, the set — an almost empty, circular
forum-like chamber set with three chairs and a row of on-stage bleachers
— gives the impression of a heavenly courtroom. That two men would
find themselves contemplating the activity of isotopes and neutrons
in the hereafter is, in itself, a daunting thought. More daunting
is Bohr’s chilling remark that Heisenberg, for all his intentions,
"never managed to contribute to the death of one single solitary
Ultimately we see how the course of human history exists and is altered
by the uncertainties and infinite possibilities of good and evil found
in the limited minds of men, just as it is manipulated and redefined
by the limitless circling scientific matter of the universe. HH
— Simon Saltzman
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